“What I accomplished by coming to Frisco I don’t know.” — Jack Kerouac
‘You got the time?” asks the stranger as I get off the downtown train. I oblige with averted eyes, tipped off by the smell of derelict that emanates from his clothes.
“You got a dollar?” the spiel continues, predictable as the afternoon fog rolling in from the ocean.
No donation forthcoming, the bum scratches his beard. He looks down as he adds, his voice lowered conspiratorially, “Does my hair look cut?”
If the azure-blue sky and the sunny hills haven’t made the point, the meds-deprived panhandler does: I am in San Francisco for Christmas. It is the annual expat ritual — the return to origins for the holidays, to check in with family and friends and report about life overseas.
For some home-comers, reconnecting with the point of departure is also a cause for reflection: Where have I been, and where am I going? Is there another life to return to? And if you can’t go back home, will “one more year” in Japan not rather be more like 20 — and how do you feel about that?
This year, my visit has an added twist. I’m here for a job interview and reconnaissance, testing the water for repatriation. In a bold move of geographical wishful thinking, I want to prove myself on home ground. After seven years in Japan — with the mission creep of the sojourner who came for a year, maybe two, and found gainful employment, a wife, a whole new life — I am attempting re-entry into a former home that has carried on, somehow, in my absence.
Anthropologists have coined the term “flexible citizen,” though my friends prefer “footloose mess.” So now I’m back in the thick of it — only the thick has changed, and so have I.
As for San Fran, it has a new lover — in fact, lovers galore, as befitting a ravishing libertine available to the highest bidder. In a stealth nerd assert, it is owned now by Facebook and Google and all the IT next-big-things. The techies, of course, aren’t evil; they just can’t help ruining a laid-back city by driving rents into the stratosphere and making everyone talk about capital. The nerds, too, lament this; the city passes no judgment.
These days, being in San Francisco feels like sitting in the Shibuya Starbucks in Tokyo, overlooking the famous intersection. You have a feverish sense of the pinnacle of urban experience. But somehow the moment keeps falling short, unable to live up to the hype, and you don’t know anymore how to act.
Walking the streets I’ve walked hundreds of times, I now feel like a pointless ghost, assessing the familiar and the new. I see shoebox apartments renting out for $3,000, and hoodied techies eating paleo lunches next to homeless people who rummage through dumpsters for food. All of a sudden, a raggedy madman charges the sidewalk and screams at the top of his lungs, “Four f——— dollars! She said four f——— dollars and she’d be right back!”
This reconnaissance plan might take longer than I thought …
There it is, written down in my journal: “What do I want from America?”
It’s a great question, and I can answer it: The voltage of change and opportunity. Cheap Mexican food. Unruly diversity. The vigilance as you cross a street, because if you sleepwalk with your eyes on your phone, you will end up as roadkill. These things I miss in Japan — if you follow a nomadic impulse, you should be clear about motivation.
Late at night at a doughnut shop, down the street from my favorite bar in the heady post-college days, I give in to nostalgia at last. The drunk poetry readings and crushes, the after-hour tequila with the staff and exotic dancers named Devilla and Dior Tresor.
But I am not that person anymore, and a part of me is grateful for that. The young man who used to stumble out of that bar would have no chance at my job interview tomorrow. The guy who might get the job is the man I became when I left. And if I now can allow for some constancy in my life, if I can live with the same woman without needing a soothing distance, that also is something I learned in Japan.
Growing up in the Western hemisphere means to wax sentimental on Christmas. It means to yearn as on no other day for the escapes of time and memory — the childhood protection you wanted to keep forever but lost.
Sometimes I wonder if the compulsive migrations in my life — the auspicious beginnings and the bittersweet farewells they engendered — were re-enacting the trauma of losing that safe protection. Living removed from your childhood in a different life, you are buffered against the comparison. Sometimes it is safer to love from a distance.
As I stroll through the streets that have emptied for the holidays, I remember a Christmas Day when I was 7 years old. I’d woken up early and stolen into the living room, to curl up on the couch with a gifted Dashiell Hammet mystery. The smell of candles and pine hung sweetly in the quiet of the house; wrapping paper was strewn on the floor.
My father shuffled in wearing pajamas, rumpled and bleary-eyed, to check if everything was OK. It was the lifelong obsession of a man who cared deeply: to check if everything was OK. Yet despite all the checking, he passed away — years ago, just days before Christmas.
“Everything’s perfect,” I said.
“That sounds nice — ‘perfect.’ “
He gave a soft smile, looking around the room, at the Christmas tree.
“That new book any good?” he asked.
My father lingered on irresolutely. The only place to sit down was next to me on the couch.
He made up his mind and was almost out the door when he turned round and looked at me one last time. His eyes were sad that he was leaving, and yet somehow he couldn’t stay.
“I’m gonna start making breakfast. Let me know if you need anything … and merry Christmas.”
Nicolas Gattig is a writer and intercultural communication coach. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion about issues related to Japan. Your comments and ideas: email@example.com